Though the Black Lives Matter movement has brought many aspects of systemic racism to the forefront of contemporary media, Black Americans have been circulating their ideas for more than 200 years.
At this year’s Invitational Lecture for the Society for the Humanities, “Defining Democracy: How Black Print Culture Shaped America, Then and Now,” associate professor of literatures in English Derrick Spires will counter the racist notion that little to no Black print culture existed before the Civil War. The lecture will take place virtually on Wednesday, Dec. 1, from 5:30-6:30 p.m.
Print culture is an interdisciplinary field of study that has emerged from traditional book history scholarship to encompass a wide range of printed materials, as well as the political, social and economic processes of their production, circulation and reception. Using materials from Cornell’s own Rare and Manuscript Collections—many of which were published in and around Central New York—Spires will highlight 19th-century Black Americans’ robust print and activist network, which included national conventions, newspapers with international distribution and a host of poetry, fiction and speeches.
“Black Americans understood themselves as citizens and developed ideas of freedom, equality and justice that had a profound effect on the nation,” says Spires. These early influences “have much to teach us about the possibilities and failures of democracy in the United States, then and now.”
Spires is also an affiliate faculty member in the departments of American Studies and Visual Studies, and the Media Studies program. His book, "The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), traces the parallel development of early Black print culture and legal and cultural understandings of U.S. citizenship. His current book project, "Serial Blackness: Periodical Literature and Early African American Literary," takes up serial publication as both the core of early African American literary history and a heuristic for understanding blackness in the long nineteenth century.
“Defining Democracy: How Black Print Culture Shaped America, Then and Now” will be a webcast hosted by eCornell. The Cornell community and members of the public can register online.